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Reading the Riots: what about those who didn't riot?

Posted on 16 December 2011
Tags: London riots, research methodology

Penny YoungI woke up last Monday (5th Dec) to the Today programme newspaper reviews, feeling a touch churlish. The reason? The Guardian was launching Reading the Riots , its groundbreaking research collaboration with the LSE, supported by Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The Guardian handed over pages and pages to the work, generating a huge amount of debate and comment. Well over a month earlier our own study of rioters and non-rioters was published. But in contrast, it was picked up by just a few tenacious commentators including Mark Easton. Essentially, as a report commissioned by the Cabinet Office, it was published openly and transparently, but it didn't have the might of a daily newspaper behind it.

Churlishness isn't massively constructive, I concede. The bigger prize is ensuring that the wider jigsaw of serious research and analytically based contributions begin to inform a real debate.

To this end, the Reading the Riots team put on a brilliant conference on Wednesday. The stellar cast list of speakers included Camila Batmanghelidjh, Lynne Owens(Assistant Commissioner, Metropolitan Police) Theresa May, Yvette Cooper, Julia Unwin (JRF's Chief Executive), Louise Casey (wearing her new "Troubled Families" hat), Baroness Maeve Sherlock (The Riots Panel) - and a few blokes come to think of it including Ed Miliband, Alan Rusbridger and Paul Lewis from the Guardian, and Professor Tim Newburn who led the research at LSE.

Here are a few reflections on methodology and impact from the day.

The LSE/Guardian research is a rich combination of qualitative and quantitative interviews with people who rioted, together with analysis of social media and court convictions data. Much of the quant data is brought to life with powerful data visualisation. Two aspects of the methodology are particularly noteworthy. First, the LSE research has come under criticism (not least from the Home Secretary herself at the conference) for only interviewing rioters. This, she argued, led the research to add up to little more than self-justification by criminals. Many at the conference disagreed - some very noisily. I would certainly argue that we must hear from and listen to the people involved, however difficult that is. But equally, one differentiating feature of our own research was that we did interview people who could have rioted but chose not to. This has proved particularly effective in identifying factors that could draw people into joining in the riots once they were underway (for example, a feeling of nothing to lose, disenchantment with those in authority and control, together with a feeling that you wouldn't get caught), versus some of the protective factors (strong parental or other authority figures, a strong attachment to the local community, and a feeling of a stake in the future). Not that it was a simple matter of causation: people's sense of right and wrong also came into it, and some fast regretted their choice. But the important point is that because we had a control group, we were able to draw out these nuances.

Another striking aspect of the methodology which it would be good to hear more about was the use of community interviewers. Thirty researchers were hired especially for the job. They were recruited to have interviewing skills, but it's fair to say that this wasn't a group of career researchers. This is a fascinating aspect. Many of the researchers were there yesterday. As a group, they seemed more diverse than many in the social research industry - my impression, I acknowledge - and one likely advantage will have been their connectedness to communities and their ability to persuade people to take part. Whether more experienced researchers would have be more skilled in challenging rioters about their narratives, I can't judge, but I do know that our own researchers did draw on their extensive qualitative interviewing experience to probe accounts fully.

One of the most interesting features of the research was the very nature of the collaboration: a first between a newspaper and a serious research outfit. Alan Rusbridger acknowledged that there was probably mutual suspicion to start with - not least about improbably different approaches to time scales - but it's clear that this became a very constructive partnership. But did tying up with a newspaper of certain values cause the LSE any risk in terms of perceived lack of impartiality? Of course, as a social scientist, I know that the LSE team will have asserted its independence to the hilt. But did it make the research an easy target for others? Optics can be all.

Finally, a couple of observations on rhetoric and debate. One striking feature of the day was how people chose to engage. I wouldn't normally comment on the behaviour of a politician for fear of being considered politically biased. But Theresa May was the talk of the conference at lunch - whatever side of the political spectrum or discipline people came from. She was dismissive of the LSE research on the one hand, and quoted from it selectively on the other. She chose particularly provocative and emphatic language to describe the rioters. And sadly, too many of the audience fell into the trap of heckling, which played right into the Home Secretary's hand. Afterwards, a young guy man from Brixton stood up and dismissed pretty much everyone who'd spoken so far: the politicians, the research and academic community, the legal profession, the media………. His complaint? That while they were hearing young people, they weren't actually listening. He said that only Camilla Batmanghelidjh actually listens. What can the rest of us learn in terms of rhetoric and debate?

All in all, I came away from the day very inspired about how research can evolve and have impact. This wasn't just a research project. It was a ground breaking research-based landmark event. Everyone in the research and academic communities can learn from it. Hats off to Paul Lewis from the Guardian for instigating the whole thing.

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